On July 21, 2019, in solidarity with my fellow members of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Company B, I attended the 30th Anniversary showing of the movie Glory. Although several of the 54th were in Bowie, Maryland, I attended the showing in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Accompanied by my wife Malanna, a member of the Women of the American Civil War, and Yvette Blake, vice president of the 23rd United States Colored Troops and a member of Women of the American Civil War, we were among a small audience at the Regal Cinema.
Proudly wearing my 54th Mass., Co. B T-shirt and my kepi, I represented “A Brave Black Regiment,” the title of the book written in 1894 about the 54th by Captain Luis F. Emilio, Co. E of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. A few of the audience members asked me if I was a member of the 54th, and I talked to them about Company B, since some of my friends were in the movie.
Glory gives me a great sense of pride every time that I see it. It originally inspired me to become a living historian and reenactor with the 54th Massachusetts Company B, out of my hometown of Washington, D.C.
The soldiers represented in the movie as the 54th were not a real representation of the original 54th Massachusetts. Instead, as I often say, the regiment represented as the 54th in Glory was more like another regiment I help portray, the 23rd United States Colored Troops, which included more formerly enslaved men than free men.
The soldiers of the Massachusetts Volunteers—54th and 55th Infantries and the 5th Cavalry—were mostly educated men. As Captain Emilio states in his book, there were very few former slaves in the regiment:
Only a small proportion had been slaves…. Compared with the material of contraband regiments, they were lighter, taller, of more regular features. There were men enough found amply qualified to more than supply all requirements for warrant officers and clerks…. The co-operation of the non-commissioned officers helped greatly to secure the good reputation enjoyed by the Fifty-fourth.…
The role of the non-commissioned officer was exemplified in the movie by Morgan Freeman’s role as the sergeant.
African American soldiers from Massachusetts also appeared in the movie Lincoln, which offered another view of the quality of the men who came from the Bay State. Corporal Ira Clark, 5th Massachusetts Cavalry, showed his poise, intelligence, and political awareness when speaking with President Abraham Lincoln in the opening scenes of the movie. He informed Lincoln that, now that white people had accepted black soldiers, maybe in a few years they would accept lieutenants and captains; in fifty years maybe a colonel; and in one hundred years, the vote. Fortunately, it did not take that long, as there were more than 100 black officers in the Civil War.
The Battle of Fort Wagner, which won tremendous accolades for the 54th, led to the fall of Fort Wagner in September 1863. The 54th and 55th Massachusetts Infantries were among the regiments to take over the fort when the Confederates had to abandon it. The end notes of the movie, however, gave the impression that the fort was never taken.
I first saw the reenactors of the 54th at a living history event on 130th Anniversary of the Battle of Fort Stevens. I had a long conversation with one of the sergeants (I cannot remember his name now), who all but recruited me for the 54th then. However, since I was an area manager with Crestar Bank at the time, I was always on 24-hour security call, just in case of an incident with any of my branches, so I could not join the regiment. In 1988, at the unveiling of the African American Civil War Memorial in Washington, D.C., I again came across the 54th and some of the other USCT regiments. I had conversations with several of the living historians again, but still because of my job—now as a SunTrust regional manager—I could not join them. Finally, after I co-founded the 23rd USCT, I met Lou Carter, Bob Wright, and Howard Lambert of the 54th at an event in Spotsylvania County. They had been representing the 23rd in Spotsylvania for a few years and were surprised when we showed up. On April 16, 2012, Kevin Williams (the 23rd USCT Hospital Steward) and I participated with the 54th at the 150th Anniversary of D.C. Emancipation Day Parade in Washington, D.C. Kevin and I accompanied about eight of the 54th for a leisurely lunch after the parade and made lifelong friendships with the 54th—in fact, we both joined the 54th after that lunch. They have mentored the 23rd ever since.
The 2013 Inaugural Parade was a very special parade for the 54th, as both Company A from Boston and Company B, from D.C. marched in it. Company B was later in the parade and when we marched in front of President Obama, we saluted him and he stood up, along with the people in his booth, and saluted us back. It was great for me because I was in the front row, close to the flag, and one of the local TV stations showed me in the middle of the screen. I had people texting and calling me before the parade was over, saying that they had seen me on television. It made me feel like a celebrity for about a week—and then I came back to reality!
After many events with the 54th, including the 150th Anniversaries of the Battle of New Market Heights, the Grand Review Parade in Washington, and the USCT Grand Review Parade in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, I began interviewing some of my fellow living historians from both the 54th Mass. and 23rd USCT. At the New Market Heights event, I had some discussions with many of the African American reenactors from across the United States, as the black reenactors made up about a third of the Union army on the Saturday of that weekend’s events. Fourteen US Colored Troops and two of their white officers won Medals of Honor for their fighting at New Market Heights, so the USCT Living History Association (USCTLHA) made it a priority event in September 2014.
Some of the reenactors had been in the movie Glory, and some have had significant reenactment histories, so I wanted to get their stories on being in the movie and their experiences in living history. Only two of the people I interacted with, as well as myself, knew about the United States Colored Troops when we were young. Walt Sanderson, also a Washingtonian like me, also learned about the 54th Massachusetts as a child. His father attended Robert Gould Shaw Junior High School in D.C. Walt started reenacting in the early 1980’s with the 28th Massachusetts; they informed him that at the time there were only four black reenactors. Then Bill Gwaltney began recruiting for the 54th for the movie Glory, and Walt signed up and was in the movie.
Lou Carter grew up in Richmond, Virginia, the capitol of the Confederacy. He knew about the Civil War and studied it and found out about the Battle of New Market Heights. He studied the battlefield, which is mostly private property. He knew about Sergeant Christian Fleetwood winning the Medal of Honor on that battlefield (I did the Sgt. Fleetwood voiceover for New Market Heights Battle on the American Battlefield Trust’s Richmond Battle app). Lou did not make it into the movie, however, he made it into the documentary Morgan Freeman narrated, The True Story of Glory Continues, as part of a special two-DVD set of the movie.
Finally, I want to pay tribute to two of the younger African American reenactors on the field that day, Marcellus Williams and Kevin Williams. I had not spoken very much to Marcellus, who was a member of the 54th, but he had a health condition and did not make many events. He was determined to be at New Market Heights to celebrate the fourteen black Medal of Honor winners. He spoke passionately about the black Civil War soldiers, then just as passionately about why we still had the onus to share with the public the stories of those black men.
Kevin was my best friend in the 23rd USCT. When we went to the various battlefields, we explored them, and I would give him guided tours of those battlefields. He spent 24 years in the U. S. Navy and credited those USCT soldiers and his father, who was a Montford Point Marine, with his successful military career. Marcellus and Kevin both passed away before I could tell their stories.
Glory has inspired all of us and made us very proud of the role of the United States Colored Troops in the Civil War. As the Chaplain of the 23rd USCT, Reverend Hashmel Turner always says, “We have to tell the world of the untold stories of the United States Colored Troops!”